07 January, 2007

The Tinner's Corpse: A Crowner John Mystery

Radio 4’s Saturday Play yesterday (6 January 2007) was an adaptation of a historical mystery novel, The Tinner’s Corpse by Bernard Knight. It’s available on Listen Again for a week, so you can still listen to it provided you do it before Saturday 13 January.

Set in Devon in 1195, it’s a little later than that doyen of the medieval mystery, the Brother Cadfael series. Instead of an ecclesiastic, the detective is a bluff no-nonsense knight, Sir John de Wolfe, coroner of Devon, the ‘Crowner John’ of the series title, aided by his trusty sidekick, the naive young clerk Thomas. Sir John shares his crusading background with Cadfael. Thomas wants to be a priest, but was thrown out of his training when the bishop caught him stealing a chaste – so Thomas insists – kiss from a girl.

The Tinner’s Corpse is set against the background of tin mining on Dartmoor, and as well as solving the murder mystery Crowner John and Thomas have their own personal problems to sort out. Here’s the blurb from the novel:

Crowner John is summoned to the bleak Devonshire moors to investigate the murder of the overman of a tin mining gang working for Walter Knapman, one of Devon's most powerful tin merchants. The case is puzzling, but things get even more confusing when Walter disappears. A decapitated body, a missing tinner, a disgruntled band of miners and a mad Saxon. How on earth can Crowner John sort all this out when his wife and mistress hate him, and his clerk is in the grip of a suicidal depression?
The personal lives of Crowner John and Thomas are given at least as much attention as the mystery. Sir John is married, though his wife never made an appearance in the play, and engaged in a longstanding extramarital affair with beautiful red-headed Welsh tavern-keeper Nesta. (You guessed right, she has the fiery character to go with the red hair) He also has an irascible relationship with his brother-in-law, who is the Sheriff of Devon and a slimy political type with his fingers in the till. Thomas seems to be adolescent (I didn’t catch his exact age, but got the impression he was about sixteen), eager but inept, who takes everything terribly seriously. In a modern school he’d be the geeky kid with glasses who’s no good at games. I rather liked Thomas, though I could also see how his ineptitude might try Sir John’s less-than-limitless patience. All this gave the play a charming human touch, and it also seemed very well researched – I noticed no anachronistic names or events, and nothing that made me mutter, "Oh, please!".

By contrast, the mystery itself seemed quite slight. There’s a line in one of Dorothy L Sayers’ novels where the respected mystery writer Harriet Vane admits to Lord Peter Wimsey that she once devised a crime so fiendishly complicated that she could think of no way for her detective to solve it and had to fall back on the murderer’s confession. Well, The Tinner’s Corpse fell back on the murderer’s confession not once but twice. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the detective to have to do more detecting than that to solve a mystery, historical or otherwise. As the author, Bernard Knight, is a retired forensic pathologist, I was expecting the case to turn on some forensic detail, like the time of death or the type of murder weapon. Maybe such details were present in the original novel but deemed impractical on radio, or considered too gruesome for a Saturday afternoon audience? Or maybe The Tinner’s Corpse isn’t typical of the Crowner John mysteries. At any rate, the radio adaptation was pleasant company for an hour and half while doing the ironing and mending.

Did anyone else hear it? What did you think? Or if you’ve read the novels, what do you think of them?


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I have read one Bernard Knight many years ago - so long that I had to go and look on Amazon to try an remember the title. I think it was The Awful Secret. I recall being moderately entertained. They're the sort of books I'd read from the library but perhaps not buy. The author struck me as being a fairly elderly gent with a collection of musty old research works that haven't been updated. He had a glossary at the front of the book I read and there were several wrong entries although I couldn't quote them to you now, it was too long ago. From what I read when I read the novel, he needs to update his research in the light of fresh evidence and understanding of the period. He was good on some aspects but fell down on others. I may have to visit another of his words next time I go to the library. It's been a while since I've dabbled in a medieval mystery and you have whetted my interest again.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - if you've got 90 minutes' worth of quiet and stationary chores to do between now and next Saturday, the play on Listen Again might be a painless way of trying another. 'Moderately entertained' would be a fair description.
Isn't The Awful Secret something to do with the Templars or the Cathars?

Kathryn Warner said...

I have three of the Crowner John books - I picked them up very cheaply absolutely ages ago, but have never got round to reading them. Maybe I should give one a try - I do like medieval mysteries.

Rick said...

I'm not familiar with Crowner John at all, but the setup sounds interesting. I agree, though, that a detective in any era ought to do some, well, detecting. Perry Mason-style confessions are fine, but they're supposed to result from the perp getting caught in their own lies, unravelled by the investigator.

And I'd certainly expect a forensic pathologist to use his own background as a pivot - who better to know what an investigator lacking modern techniques but familiar with death scenes would be able to infer?

I once mulled the idea of a detective in ancient Greece. I had a character, Philonikos the Sophist, and a single line:

The man from Thebes didn't want to talk. I bounced him off the wall a few times and he talked. Even a Boiotian can grasp a simple concept, if you make it clear enough.

Alas, that was as far as I ever got.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, Rick.

Hm, let's see if I can get one cheap. :)

I found some interesting Roman mysteries by David Wishart - if the first book keeps up the promise, I did the right thing to buy three of them because blurbs intrigued me: Ovid (about Ovid and about the Varus battle - with some very interesting twists so far) Germanicus (who killed him?) and Seianus (you gotta love some juicy Tiberian Rome intrugue).

Carla said...

Alianore - let me know what you think, if you read them. I have a suspicion that there might be more forensic work in the novels that didn't make it to the radio, for the reason that Rick gives - one would expect the author to make use of his expertise!

Rick - sounds a bit reminiscent of Lindsay Davies' wisecracking Falco, or I have got the wrong end of the stick? Apparently the office of coroner was invented/reintroduced by Richard Lionheart in 1194 and the name of the first Coroner of Devon isn't recorded, hence the fictional Crowner John.

Gabriele - those sound fun. Plenty of scope for skullduggery and conspiracy in early Imperial Rome!

Bernita said...

Rick, I really like that.
Pity you haven't gone further.

Rick said...

Carla - definitely reminiscent of Falco, though I may have had the idea before I encountered the Falco books. (Has he ever come up with the 300,000 sesterces to become an equites and marry Helena?)

Everyone has fun with the Romans, but people still seem to think that the Greeks just stood around talking about Truth and Beauty.

Carla said...

Rick - I've no idea - I'm not up to date with Falco's adventures! Though if I were Lindsay Davies I'd think twice about closing down a long-running plot thread in a series - and didn't he calculate it would take him about 400 years to earn the money? So I suspect not.

On the Greeks, wasn't that one of the Rules for Classical Set Historical Fiction? A quote from one of Terry Pratchett's characters comes immediately to mind, "Philosophers - one minute it's all Is Truth Beauty and Is Beauty Truth, and the next minute one of them says 'Incidentally, a fifty-foot parabolic mirror on that hill overlooking the harbour would be an interesting demonstration of optical principles', and that's why your empire hasn't got a navy any more!"
(Small Gods, and I don't guarantee it's an exact quote because I haven't looked it up, but it's not far off)

Rick said...

Carla - yes, I'd be astonished if Falco came up with the money! But for how many books can Helena go on being the PI's Steady Girlfriend - hasn't Miss Snark made a snarkelicious remark or two about the Spenser novels?

As for the classical-setting Rules, well Philonikos was witty, so at least I had that one covered. But then, what PI isn't?

Carla said...

Rick - I missed that, what was the comment (and what are the Spenser novels)? I don't suppose Helena could really have lived with Falco for five minutes without being utterly ostracised, so whether it's one book or 20 doesn't really matter!

Rick said...

The Spenser novels are a pretty long-running mystery series - I forget the author's name. Miss Snark's comments were a ways back; she may not have been making the same specific point, but it was clear she thought the serious had exhausted its possibilities and then some.

And it's been long enough since I read a Falco novel that I don't recall their exact relationship, except that she was clearly what we would call his girlfriend.

Carla said...

I wouldn't say Falco's in danger of exhausting the series' possibilities just yet, though I haven't read the most recent few. In some ways they're a satire on modern life so that probably helps bring in fresh material. At the point I'd got up to, Helena was Falco's live-in girlfriend - she'd moved into his apartment (he's gone a bit upscale from the gimcrack bedsit he had at the beginning) and had his baby. I suppose in modern parlance they'd be a co-habiting couple, married in all but the legal sense.